A Case for Glass Recycling

Glass recycling has been a hot topic of late and the long-standing trope is that glass competes with sand as its virgin counterpart and there is no shortage of sand. As it turns out, however, there is a global shortage of sand, as one might expect of any finite resource.  This New York Times article will give you a sense of the degree to which sand is being mined and the impact of such mining. 

It seems to me that those of us interested in sustainable materials management should advocate the socialization of a wide range of materials recovery, including those materials on which there aren’t necessarily substantial profit margins; due to the environmental and avoided cost impact, if not for (or despite) the near term financial impact. Current capital investments in systems and each associated financial pro forma already incorporate glass as a challenging commodity that comes with operational hurdles and, more often than not, a negative value.  Our system, however, when operating properly, produces a pretty high quality product that end markets have found appealing.  It can be moved to market at a price cheaper than landfilling.

The push to remove glass seems to disregard the premise that smart businessmen and communities made investments and deals knowing full well they had to deal with glass and its many challenges, as if those folks haven’t been dealing just fine with these challenges for years. Frankly, I view much of the move away from glass recovery for companies such as Waste Management (WM) as an opportunistic effort to use fluctuations and challenges in the commodities markets as an excuse to get around their prior commitments to wise material management positions in favor of their more traditional and profitable business operations such as landfilling.

There is also the human behavior component to consider.  One reason RRRASOC accepts glass for recycling is because homeowners want to recycle it.  While it is hard to process, it can be processed and there are markets for it, challenging and elusive though they may be. If nothing else, we can consider glass as a loss leader, as is so often found in the retail industry.  While glass may not be particularly profitable in the short term, it plays a role in making recycling convenient for homeowners and fosters participation. As we strive to encourage more recycling and capture more resources due to the economic and environmental value, eliminating glass due to its near term challenges is, I believe, short sighted and discourages growth in recycling.  Rather, we should build the requisite infrastructure and systems while encouraging market development in end markets for glass.

Finally, in the big picture, the negative impact of glass on the total cost of service at the municipal level is negligible.  While there is a small net cost, as a homeowner, it is a cost worth bearing to ensure convenient and robust curbside service that returns to the value chain a commodity whose origins are from a finite resource.

Let me use the City of Farmington and RRRASOC’s MRF as an example using real numbers. RRRASOC’s deal with ReCommunity is such that the Authority captures, on behalf of Farmington, 60% of the difference between the average per ton value of the basket of recyclables and a set target price.  The target price can be thought of as ReCommunity’s operational and capital costs (and probably plus margin). Last month, RRRASOC’s per ton revenue share was $9.59, which translates into an annual recyclables net value of $2.39 per household.

The City’s contract with WM for curbside service provides for refuse collection/disposal, yard waste collection/composting, recycling collection, and bulk item collection/disposal.  There is no recycling tip fee due to our MRF and our contract with ReCommunity. The total curbside cost per household is $148.35 per year.  As such, the recycling revenue is 1.61% of the gross service cost and leaves a net cost of $145.96. The vast majority of the City’s contract costs are from collection.

Farmington has a successful recycling program that generates nearly 500 pounds per household per year.  The use of carts plays a big role in this success. An audit of RRRASOC’s recycling stream shows that glass is 11.23% of the recyclable material collected in Farmington. Glass would have to be collected whether it goes to a MRF or a landfill. If glass is removed from the recycling stream, the figures above don’t change dramatically.

Removing the glass volumes and its current negative value from the recycling stream puts the annual per household net value of the collected recyclables at $3.78. Since the glass would instead be collected by the refuse truck and landfilled, that volume would increase the City’s disposal costs by an estimated $.70 per household, raising the total service cost to $149.05. As such, the net value of the recyclables would increase to 2.53% of the gross service cost and the net cost would be $145.27.

In other words, removing glass from the recycling stream would save each household $.69 per year, under current market conditions. That represents less than half of one percent of costs to deal with a commodity that is around four percent of the waste stream in a way that is consistent with principles of sustainability.

So to save the homeowner $.69 per year, we provide them with reduced customer service and reduced recycling convenience.  While I’m not sure how much that would negatively impact the recycling of other materials, I am willing to surmise that it would reduce overall recycling participation.

Saving that $.69 per household per year would make it harder to achieve stated recycling goals.  For a community like Farmington that has achieved a recycling rate of more than 50% over each of the past three years, just removing glass would reduce their diversion rate by nearly two percentage points and jeopardize future improvements.

Lastly, eliminating glass from the recycling stream to save $.69 per household per year constitutes a failure to properly weight the importance of maintaining policies and infrastructure to meet worldwide resource shortages and to make end-of-life materials management decisions that give at least equal weight to environmental and community impacts as might be given to $.69.

Mike Csapo
General Manager

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